Monthly Archives: March 2012

Why Jim Kim is Right for the World Bank

As faithful readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of the Barack Obama’s foreign policy positions and decisions.  Specifically, I like his deference to nuanced conditions and his emphasis on achieving the objective over claiming credit.  In my neck of the woods – specifically, Libya, Somalia, and Uganda – he understands and appreciates the nuances that made previous incursions into the region unsuccessful.  I think he understands that multilateralism and mutual respect can achieve more than the cavalier dependence on American exceptionalism.

That is why when I read that he endorsed Jim Kim, co-founder of Partners in Health with Paul Farmer and a giant in the field of public health, for the World Bank presidency, I tipped my hat.  Since its establishment, the executive positions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been held by an American and a European, respectively.  Former French finance minister Christine LaGarde recently replaced Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn after – in one of the great ironies in the history of the institution – he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a Guinean woman.  So when Robert Zoellick announced he would not re-run for the top spot at the World Bank, people debated whether Obama would be the first to break the streak and allow a non-American to run the Bank.

There is good reason for the Americans to run the bank.  For one thing, it was created by the U.S. and the Allies in 1944 at the tail end of World War II.  Though it started as a lender to post-war European economies, by 1968, the World Bank had shifted its focus to developing countries, funding infrastructure projects and enacting various poverty alleviation strategies. With some policy shifts here and there – most notably during the Reagan years, where neoliberalism was the approach du jour and the Bank’s sister institution, the IMF, created controversial structural adjustment programs that saddled many developing countries with tremendous amounts of debt in exchange for opening their economies – the Bank has focus on eradicating poverty and improving the lot of the four billion people living below the poverty line.

Kim, the MD/PhD

Unlike many previous World Bank presidents, Jim Kim is not a bureaucrat, politician, or World Bank insider.  He is a proven innovator and a man whose commitment to the cause cannot be questioned.  He has an MD/PhD from Harvard and has worked with some of the pre-eminent public health institutions in the world.  In founding Partners in Health, he built an organization that now employs 13,000 people in 12 countries, serving the poorest populations in the world.  Most recently, he served as the first Asian-American president of Dartmouth College.  In a letter to The Guardian, Professor Martin McKee explains why Kim is a smart choice:

Some commentators will no doubt be offended by the idea that someone who is neither a banker nor an economist could occupy this post. Others may think that, in these difficult times, we need someone like Jim Kim, who combines academic rigour with practical first-hand experience of the reality facing the world’s poor.

Jim Kim is a perfect candidate for the World Bank presidency.  He is a first-generation Korean immigrant with a proven record of success.  He is clearly innovative and committed to the work that the Bank is mandated to carry out.  Having spent his life outside of government, he is apolitical and carries no baggage.  Unlike one of his top competitors, Jeffrey Sachs, his positions on development are much more nuanced and his views less explicit.   Recently, Sachs withdrew from the race and endorsed Kim himself.  I find myself in agreement with his assessment:

Obama has shown real leadership with this appointment. He has put development at the forefront, saying explicitly, “It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.”

Kim’s appointment is a breakthrough for the World Bank, which I hope will extend to other global institutions as well. Until now, the United States had been given a kind of carte blanche to nominate anyone it wanted to the World Bank presidency. That is how the Bank ended up with several inappropriate leaders, including several bankers and political insiders who lacked the knowledge and interest to lead the fight against poverty.

The Bank can be where the world convenes to address the dire, yet solvable, problems of sustainable development, bringing together governments, scientists, scholars, civil-society organizations, and the public to advance that great cause. This is a global imperative, and we can all contribute to fulfilling it by ensuring that the World Bank is an institution truly for the world, led with expertise and integrity. Kim’s nomination is a tremendous step toward that goal.

Over the past few years, I have talked about Jim Kim a lot after my father – a physician and Dartmouth graduate – recommended the book Mountains Beyond Mountains about the work of Kim and Paul Farmer.  My dad often compared people to either Farmer or Kim.  The former loved working in the field directly with patients, while the latter preferred tackling the problem at a high level, prioritizing policy over practice as a way of maximizing his impact.  Clearly, Barack Obama’s endorsement is both recognition of Kim’s record and another example of the strategic underpinning of Obama’s approach to foreign policy.  After all, if Obama plans to pivot away from the Middle East toward Asia, endorsing Kim, an Asian-American born in Korea, sends the right signal.  Plus, Kim’s impeccable record exists in spite of his American citizenship, yet the presidency of the World Bank would still remain in the hands of an American.

As someone who works in the field and appreciates the nuances of foreign policy, I applaud the decision to elect Kim.  I look forward to seeing what innovations he will bring to the institution.

The founders of Partners in Health - Kim, Ophelia Dahl, and Paul Farmer

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

A Meta-Travel Writing Piece, pt. 2

The beach in Koh Phanang off the southern coast of Thailand.

The other day I talked about the need to really draw your reader in with a short anecdote about something that could never happen in their lives right now, but could if they did what you are doing.  Another key to enhancing the reader experience is to include language that makes your movements seem just a little bit crazy.  Look at what Levin does in this paragraph:

So I hitched a van ride from Puerta Princesa to El Nido, a tiny, dense warren of dive shops that clings to Bacuit Bay in Palawan. What I found, after six hours swerving around goats along a dirt road, was a bangka launching pad to the region’s spectacular islands.

This is genius.  Hitching a van ride could be one of several things.  It could be sitting in the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of Filipino cockfighters on the way to a bloody death match, or it could be the driver from the hotel holding a sign outside the airport that says “DEVELOP ECONOMIES.”  The fact is that it doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that the van was hitched and the road was filled with goats apparently unphased by the vans streaming past.

"I rented a motorbike from an old man in Pai and almost hit an elephant."

Later in the article, Levin describes his interactions with the ragtag group of international wanderlusts.  Check this technique out:

All this nautical freedom was affecting my shipmates. Before starting the trip, Marly Pols, 43, a Dutch flight attendant, said she had only thought of the beaches in store. But by the second day we were sharing tales and bottles of rum like a band of leisurely pirates. “This is our home now,” she said as we lounged on the top deck the next morning. “We’re in this together.”

This is a classic move.  I know because I use it in all my pieces of about travel.  It is critical to highlight the fact that these people who you have never met before have become your friends much more quickly had you not met on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no electricity.  In one of my dad’s favorites – titled “Dispatch from a Shrinking Planet” – I described the days and nights with my own band of pirates as I moved from beach to beach around the Philippines:

I mostly traveled alone, and met some cool people along the way.  I dove with a woman representing Slovenia at the World Expo in Shanghai, a professor of comparative religion in Germany, an Italian banker, and some Filipino rastas who happened to be Rotarians.  Diving is a great way to meet people, since you’re out on a boat in the middle of the ocean for eight hours a day, three days in a row, with nothing to do but eat, drink, share stories and play cards.  In fact, some of my best memories are from either from the deck of a boat in the Pacific Ocean, or the bungalows and beachfront bars where I spent most of my nights.

Hanging out with the Italian banker at the front of the boat.

Another non-Somali pirate crew in Diani Beach, Kenya

The key is to highlight the sheer randomness of it all.  Most people wake up every morning and, on average, their day progresses in a similar way as the day before.  But when you are thrown on a boat in the middle of paradise with six strangers from around the world with nothing to do but look at coral reefs, eat fresh seafood, and drink cold beers, you tend to be able to spin a few good yarns.  The fact that you are asking yourself questions like “How did I get here?” and “Is this real?” needs to come through in your writing.  Otherwise, it seems too perfect.

Is this real?

The last element to a good travel piece is the element of introspection.  Traveling is about meeting people and seeing new things.  But it is also about you and the fact that you are doing something sweet.  Here is how Levin closes out the article:

Taking a breather, I crept barefoot off to the beach, empty save for the ghost crabs who hovered by their burrows, watching me with googly-eyes. The tide was a sigh, the sky aglow with constellations, and I was, thrillingly, the only witness.

A notion of independence is essential to good travel writing.  Ultimately, these are not articles about snorkeling with Swedish people in a tropical paradise.  They are testaments to the sense of liberation that comes with doing whatever you want.  It is less about travel and more about freedom.

A few months ago, I wrote a four-part post titled “How to Travel Alone.” In part two, I describe an impulsive decision that was momentous in my own realization that you can do whatever you want:

After an amazing four days of scuba diving in Coron, an island in Palawan that was the inspiration for the novel The Beach, I flew to Manila.  I was planning on taking a bus up north to La Union, a town northern Luzon, to do some surfing.  I bid farewell to a friend I’d met on the boat, and walked to the exit to hail a taxi at around 7 PM.  The main terminal in Ninoy Aquino International Airport has huge glass walls with a view of the city.

I took a moment to reflect on my plans.  Looking out at the city skyline, I thought about the traffic, the pollution, and the seedy red light district where my favorite guesthouse happened to be located.  After a few contemplative minutes, I turned around, walked up to the Cebu Pacific ticket counter and bought a flight to Cebu that night for $30.  I got on the next flight and arrived in Cebu City at 11, called a friend to get a recommendation for a place to stay, took a taxi there and booked a room.

The next morning, I got up early and took a bus to Moalboal, a town two hours south that someone recommended in Coron.  Twenty meters below the surface of the ocean, surrounded by millions of sardines off the coast of Pescadero Island, the decision to re-write the plan was validated.

To this day, I think about staring out at Manila and turning around to buy that ticket.  That, I thought at the time, is liberating.

This sign was hanging in the lobby of the guesthouse I checked into in Cebu the night I booked the flight from Manila.

So my hat is off to Dan Levin, who successfully made the rest of the world jealous.  Your humble correspondent certainly enjoys writing and thinking about geopolitics, international development, poverty alleviation, and other deep matters.  But he is happiest when writing about life on the road, and the impulsive decisions that make it interesting.  So I hope you learned something.  Because this is a great way to make your friends jealous.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

A Meta-Travel Writing Piece, pt. 1

As a generalization, people who travel are interesting.  Not interesting in the sense that they are unique or intriguing (sometimes that is the case), but that they often tell good stories because they have fresh experiences to draw from.  And within the broader fraternity of travelers, the people who detach themselves from the grid and opt for the most self-indulgent of all pursuits – living on a boat, for example – are really the ones who are out there doing it.  Lately, some fortunate journalists from the New York Times have managed to convince their editors to allow them to do just that, and still get paid for their troubles.  And, in the spirit of the meritocratic nature of the Internet, I am going to give a lesson on travel writing.

Someone (not me) entering the propeller

These two articles – “Out at Sea, Relaxing in the Philippines” and “Cambodia’s Sweet Spot” – are basically cubicle fantasies, subtly acknowledging that the whole purpose of the piece is to make you wish that you were there and not where you happen to be at the moment.  In the first, the author takes a five-day sailing trip from El Nido to Coron.  Faithful readers of this blog will remember that Coron is the place where I cut my diving teeth, descending to 42 meters (12 beyond the legal limit for someone of my experience and designation) and into the propeller shaft of the Okikawa Maru, World War II relic of the naval battles in the Pacific Rim.   In a true case of trial by fire, I followed a Filipino dive master who had forgotten to put batteries in his torch inside the ship and was trailed by a Frenchman who almost got lost taking a wrong turn down a staircase in a 168-meter long Japanese tanker sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.   Fortunately, we caught the Frenchman heading to a different floor before it was too late, though his spirit of adventure would have hopefully guided him out of whichever room in the ship he happened to find himself.

The flight from Coron

The second article is about Kep, a sleepy town in Cambodia that has recently seen a surge of interest from travelers seeking an authentic and laid-back beach experience.  As a young backpacker in 2009, I considered myself what people in the business world call a “first-mover,” descending on the place with a small group of American microfinance volunteers and a Belgian epidemiologist who had nothing but bad things to say about two-term president who directly preceded Barack Obama.  Ironically, the Belgians, led by King Leopold, made the Americans look like Mother Theresa during the 19th century in Africa.  Unfortunately, this blog was only three posts long at the time, and the fourth – classified in my “travel and culture” section” – read as follows:

I am heading to Vietnam until December 23rd, and Cambodia until January 4th.  I am going to try to update the blog as much as I can during the break.  See you in 2010.

Clearly I was not as knowledgeable about geopolitics as I am today.  Had I met this Belgian the 260th post (this one), he would have received an earful.  Fortunately, another Kiva Fellow and frequent travel buddy, Gemma, did know a thing or two about a thing or two, and let him have it.

The only way off the island off the coast of Kep

These articles in the Times follow a classic pattern of travel writing.  Each one opens with an anecdote describing a mundane situation which generally would not happen to in your daily life.  Levin comes out swinging in his piece, opening with a brief paragraph setting the scene:

WE were floating gingerly over a forest of antler-shaped coral when I heard a Swede who was snorkeling with me shout. I popped my head above water and caught only a fragment of his declaration in the slosh of waves: “Monster in a hole.”

When he wrote that line, he surely knew what he was doing, which is to effectively reach out from the pages of the newspaper and grab the poor guy who just wanted to take his mind off the pile of work his boss just put on his desk by the collar and say “See what you could be doing?”.  Now, on top of all that, the man has to deal with the knowledge that someone somewhere is being paid to snorkel with Swedes.  But that is the key to being a good travel writer.  No one wants to read about the guy who stayed on the boat because he was afraid of getting sunburned.  They want to hear about the crazy Swedish guy who is hunting for moray eels.

Hello turtle.

Once you have set the scene, you really need to drive the point home.  Again, Levin pulls no punches in letting you know just how much better his life is than yours.  After finishing the story about the snorkeling Swede, he breaks it down in much simpler terms:

Fortunately, relaxation was never in short supply aboard the Buhay. We were in the middle of nowhere, paradise-style: a sea of high-definition azure stretching to the horizon, dotted only by distant uninhabited islands. After a few days of sailing, life had become a hazy routine: eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat.

Nothing to do but relax.

I know from experience that this is exactly what happens in the waters between El Nido and Coron.  After getting my open water and advanced certification in the span of a week, I flew to Coron to explore some wrecks.  Normally, you would need a special certification and at least 50 dives before exploring a sunken ship 40 meters below the surface of the ocean.  Of course, I had neither a certification nor anything close to 50 dives.

Fortunately, this is not the case in the Philippines, where the same laid-back vibe that Levin describes pervades every aspect of life, including the risk tolerance of the Filipino beach bum in charge of keeping you alive underwater.  When he asked how many dives I had, I lied and said 15 (it was only 10).  Clearly, I should have gone higher, since his next question was, “How good are you?”  But as a two-year captain of my swim team in high school, very little about the water scares me, so down we went.

In part two of this post, I will describe how to use language and stories to make people jealous.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

Desperation in the Slums of Nairobi

SLUM LIFE: A girl stood outside a school in the Mukuru kwa Njenga slum in Nairobi, Kenya. An Amnesty International Report says the government has failed to incorporate slums, leaving women vulnerable to sexual and other attacks. (Tony Karumba/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

On Thursday, I shadowed a colleague of mine as he conducted a survey of one of the slum communities where we have several schools.  For the last few months, I have been analyzing data about the communities where we build schools and understand where demand is highest.  Having spent months looking at scatter plots, I hoped the trip would provide better context and illuminate some of the nuances hidden within the data.  As it turned out, the trip did more than that – it exposed me to the worst poverty I have ever seen.

I met Dickens, a research associate with the company, near the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi.  After a quick breakfast, we walked a half hour through markets, past the bus station where a group of al-Shabaab sympathizers recently threw four grenades into a crowd of people, killing four and wounding dozens more.   We picked up a matatu heading to Lunga Lunga, the densely-populated slum in the industrial area near the airport, arriving at around 9 in the morning.  This is the same slum where a leaking gas line exploded, killing 75 people.  Once you step away from the main road and down into the slums, you find yourself in a maze of narrow roads and alleys surrounded on all sides by shacks made of corrugated iron sheets.

The industrial slum – also known as Mukuru Kwa Njenga – is actually one of the better slums in Nairobi, which is not saying much.  It’s proximity to manufacturing facilities – we surveyed a woman whose home literally bordered a 10-meter wall surrounding a factory – means the residents of the slums have better access to casual manual labor and, if they are lucky, salaried employment.  This access to economic opportunities is one of the main reasons people move to this slum in the first place.

Dickens is a field guy.  He began working at the company a few months ago after a stint running a survey team with a public health organization.   He has a deep knowledge of the conditions in both the rural areas and the urban slums.  When our GPS device failed to give us directions to the school, we stopped to ask a group of a boy and two girls in their late teens.  The girls were drunk and standing outside of a church, where they were picking up their ARVs – the anti-retroviral drugs that prevent HIV from turning into full-blown AIDS and reduce the risk of transmission.

At 6.7%, the HIV rate in Kenya is low compared to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.  But transmission rates in the slums are high; an estimated 14% of the residents of Korogocho, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, are HIV-positive.  In this slum, where men are paid more frequently, it may even be higher.  Because of the stigma attached to positive status, people prefer to pick up their ARVs from churches rather than hospitals.  We thanked them for the directions and went to find the school.

These slums were one of the first places where we opened our schools.  We have more than five in an area of only a few square kilometers.  Our school in Lunga Lunga is one of the most successful in our network, and watching the children run around the playground and gave some much-needed tangible meaning to the work I am doing.  After meeting the school manager, Patrick, we walked past the school and over a rickety bridge spanning a trash- and sewage-filled stream toward the community where we would continue our research.

residents in the usual conditions of Nairobi's Mukuru-kwa-Njenga slum. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

While Dickens conducted the survey in Kiswahili, the local language, I jotted down observations and questions in my notebook, not wanting to influence the answers of the respondents.  When a person sees a white person conducting a survey in the slums, they may have an incentive to make their situation seem more desperate in order to secure money.  Whether or not this was the case, I kept my distance during most interviews.

After an interview conducted in a small alleyway, we stepped back into the main road running through the slum –barely wide enough to fit a car – where we saw a young man in his late teens or early twenties being held and pushed by five other men.  Dickens shook his head and speculated that the man had been caught stealing.  “This is not going to end well,” he said.  In the slums, where people are already consumed by stress and on edge from the sheer desperation, mob justice often trumps the formal legal channels.  In the best case scenario, the police would intervene before anything could happen.  More likely, the men took him to the place where he was accused of stealing and beat him mercilessly, possibly to death.  In Kenyan slums, death by beating, stoning, or necklacing for the crime of stealing is not uncommon.  In this case, I don’t know what happened, and I am not sure I want to.

After Dickens finished the surveys, I asked if we could find our school in a part of the slum known as Tassia.  I wanted to see how the school was situated in the community in order to understand how location influences the number of students.  As we walked further down the road, Dickens and I noticed the number of people outside their homes growing smaller until it finally became empty.  When the street opened up into a massive dumpsite filled with burning trash, it became quickly apparent why this part of town was empty.  Dumpsites are notoriously dangerous, as idle youths mill around, drinking chang-a, the local brew, and robbing anyone who happens to venture too close.  Dickens made the decision to go back, and I agreed.  So we turned around and exited the slum along the same road from which we entered.  We caught a matatu back to town and called it a day.

The Dandora waste dumping site is an unrestricted dumping site that contains many hazardous materials. The United Nations did a study of more than 300 schoolchildren near Dandora and found that about 50% of them had respiratory problems. Also, 30% had blood abnormalities that signaled heavy-metal poisoning. (Photo Credit: Brendan Bannon)

The slums of Nairobi are a horrible place to live.  They are cramped, unsanitary, and dangerous.  Girls walking home from school risk being raped along the way, and murders go unnoticed by the media.  Life is as cheap as the rent, which is next to nothing.  I have been to the rural areas of Ghana and the Philippines and seen poverty of a different sort, where people still live hand-to-mouth, but still live a decent, if not difficult, existence.

The urban slums are another kind of poverty altogether.  They are the product of poorly-planned urbanization, corruption, and general indifference on the part of those who could do something about it.  Half of the population of Nairobi – about 2 million people – lives in an area that covers only 5% of the land.  And most people are trapped, forced to grind out a miserable existence or move back to the country, to a different kind of poverty.

I’m glad I went out to the slums, since it gave me perspective, both in my work and my life.  Some people have it bad.  And I am thankful I am not one of them.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

How to Get Around the World

c. 2008. I jettisoned the blazer of corporate America to live more deliberately

Perhaps the most novel and amusing aspect of living abroad is getting around.  In the United States, I spent two years walking through the Copley Square mall to avoid the dismal cold of Boston winters.  When I moved back with my parents to save money for my Kiva Fellowship, I parked my car at Norwood Central and took the commuter rail into Back Bay Station each morning, and back again in the evening.  I actually enjoyed riding the rails for those three months, since it was my first and, to-date, my only taste of suburban work-a-day living.  Every morning, armed with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and a day-old Wall Street Journal discarded by my father, I boarded the train and appreciated the fact that I was a commuter.  And, unlike my fellow riders, I didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments and other of adulthood’s reality checks.

I brought this same zeal with me to the countries I’ve lived and traveled.  And, when it comes to getting around, Africa and Asia do it right.

A tricycle and mini-bus in Bago City, Philippines

I am not quite sure where transportation innovation comes from, but the evolutionary pathway took a radical turn at some point, leaving Asia with the transportation equivalent of the sea animals shown in the Blue Planet episode on the deep ocean.  In the Philippines, the staple of the transportation diet is the jeepney.  These elongated former U.S. military jeeps with two parallel benches in that back and are known for their “flamboyant decoration and crowded seating.” These vehicles would be absurd if they weren’t so practical and convenient.  Each jeepney has a defined route, allowing you to hop-on and hop-off at your leisure, provided you know where you are going.  Amazingly the driver serves as both the controller and the comptroller, handling the money and the navigation simultaneously.  Given the separation of these duties in Africa, this feat is a testament to the industriousness of Filipinos .

A late-night impromptu jeepney charter with some new friends in Manila

For the more rural traveler, the tricycle will get you where you need to go.  Unlike the smaller, more childish version to which most people are accustomed, Filipino tricycles have a sidecar attached to a motorbike.  It is designed for two, but I have seen no less than eight people riding through the rural areas.  This may seem crazy, but it becomes more reasonable once you have seen a family of five on a single motorbike in Phnom Penh.

Sharing the back of the tricycle with a couple of kiddos

Motorbiking in Kep, Cambodia

To take you the last mile, you can pick up a trisikad.  It is the same as a tricycle, except pedal-powered.  It is truly excruciating for the driver, who is carrying 500 pounds of people on a BMX.  I know because I tried my luck as a trisikad driver during one late-night excursion back from the bar on Bantayan Island, which gave me a new appreciation for white collar labor.

Hour #12 on the bus in Burma

Different species belonging to the same phylum as these weird creatures exist throughout Southeast Asia.  The tuk-tuk in Cambodia and Thailand, the motorbike in Vietnam, and the fishing-boat ferry with the outboard motor in waterway throughout Asia give you a taste of the authentic.  Of course, the bicycle is truly the rice of the Southeast Asian diet, ubiquitous and trustworthy.

Riding my bike in Bagan

For some serious grittiness, Africa offers a connoisseur’s menu.  In Ghana, the tro-tro, otherwise known as “the tro,” is the way to get around.  It is a large, rectangular van forged out of hard steel.  Unlike the florid jeepney, the tro is straight monochromatic business.  For a dollar or two, one can “tro it,” as my Canadian friends used to say, long distances.  For a more comfortable ride, you can take the air-conditioned bus, but will be forced to watch Nigerian movies that are generally about witches, adultery, or both.  Unlike Hollywood, where a director might put out one movie a year, Nollywood functions more like the soft-core pornography industry, where directors make a movie a week.

Riding the train to Mombasa, Kenya

For pure chaos, Nairobi is truly Mecca.  Matatus – 14-seater passenger vans operated by a two-man team made up of a driver and a “tout” – careen through the city, spending more time on the sidewalk or the wrong lane than in their own lane, where they belong.  These horrible transports cause problems for everything, creating needless traffic jams by purposefully creating loggerheads and refusing to back down.   As with copies of the Sega game “Shaq Fu,” the world would be a better place if they did not exist.  Fortunately, the city of Nairobi is planning on getting rid of them once and for all.

In my Barack Obama shirt, next to the Tender Lover

There is one saving grace to matatus: their names.  A friend of mine actually compiled a list of the best matatu names over the course of three months.  Here are a few:

  1. Total Pain
  2. Facebook
  3. Hearse
  4. Emirates
  5. Tender Lover
  6. Burberry
  7. Ceo
  8. Short Message
  9. Mystical
  10. Malia Obama
  11. Baseline
  12. Alicia
  13. Compliant MOA
  14. God’s Power
  15. Pirates
  16. Jolly Escort
  17. Christaholic
  18. Seduction
  19. Annointed Reloaded
  20. Karl Malone

Either way, these miserable machines get the job done.  And I will keep riding them until something better comes along.

Anyways, those are some of my favorite forms of transportation.  I look forward to sample the rest of what the world has to offer.

A fishing boat on Inle Lake, Burma

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

Stealing an Education in Fairfield County

The most unequal town in America.

Today, I work for a company that is trying to establish a floor of education for every child in the world, regardless of income status.  Children should have access to a basic education, regardless of socioeconomic status.  And what motivates people at this company is the very real prospect of achieving just that.  We have 60 schools today.  In a year, we will have countless more.  If this experiment works, every child, no matter how poor, will have access to a decent education for cheap.  That is what drives people.

The accused.

So when I heard about a homeless woman who was arrested for “stealing education” in Bridgeport, it upset me.  The ironically-named Stamford Advocate has the story:

NORWALK — A homeless woman from Bridgeport who enrolled her 6-year-old son at a Norwalk elementary school has become the first in the city to be charged with stealing more than $15,000 for the cost of her child’s education.

Tonya McDowell, 33, whose last known address was 66 Priscilla St., Bridgeport, was charged Thursday with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 from Norwalk schools. She was released after posting a $25,000 bond.

McDowell’s babysitter, Ana Rebecca Marques, was also evicted from her Roodner Court public housing apartment for providing documents to enroll the child at Brookside Elementary School.

This is despicable.  Fairfield County, to me, symbolizes everything that is wrong with America today.  It presents the most egregious example of raw inequality that is at the heart of our society today.  On this blog, your correspondent lamented the fact that the Bridgeport County, which has some of both the poorest and richest towns in America, has a Gini coefficient – the measure of income inequality – that is higher than that of Zimbabwe.  In this county, housing projects and yacht clubs share the same area code.  In an article titled, “Gap of Luxury,” Benjamin Carlson explains the situation:

Traveling the few miles between Bridgeport proper and its suburbs can feel like crossing into different worlds.

On one side of the proverbial tracks, there are 50-foot sailboats, vintage Ferraris and quaint New England streets lined by immaculate colonial mansions. On the other, a quarter of the population lives in poverty, unemployment is 14 percent, and 95 percent of the kids in public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

In Fairfield, a quaint town bordering Bridgeport, there are the obvious markers of American affluence: white picket fences, jewelry boutiques and a Whole Foods with parking spots reserved for electric cars.

But a few steps from the main drag, a homeless shelter called Operation Hope caters to those lying on the opposite side of the wealth divide.

The travesty of Fairfield County

The United States has been growing steadily more unequal over the past two decades.  Some of this has to do with globalization and a global market for labor has rendered certain jobs obsolete or uncompetitive in the United States.  Some of this also has to do with the irresponsibility and recklessness within the financial system in the United States.  And it is here that I find some of the greatest irony.

The median income for a family in Norwalk is about $85,000.  In contrast, the same number in Bridgeport – the town from which Ms. McDowell hails – is $39,000, or less than half.  Fairfield County, which encompasses both communities, has been called a “hedge fund ghetto” because of the high concentration of investment management funds in the area.  Some of the financial engineering that lay at the heart of the economic crisis took place in Fairfield County.

To date, not a single person has been prosecuted for crimes committed during the financial crisis.  Many of them continue to live comfortably in Fairfield County.  Yet a woman who falsified her place of residence to gain access to the better public education system that is largely funded by the very source of revenue that has made things worse for people in Bridgeport has been sent to jail for 12 years for her crimes.  Why such a harsh penalty?  Richard Moccia, the mayor of Norwalk, has the answer:

“This now sends a message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and registering their kids with phony addresses,” he said.

Fairfield County should take a hard look at itself and ask itself whether this is the way they want to treat their own.  And the United States should think about the way that it is educating its children.  The U.S. – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – is rated “average” in terms of education in the OECD’s most recent PISA report, including a below-average 25th in mathematics.  Making the best education accessible only to those who can afford it is a losing formula for competing in a global economy.  How bad of an idea is it really?  The Harvard Business Review doesn’t mince words:

By practically any measure, the quality of public K–12 education in the United States is dismal. Of the high school seniors who in 2009 took the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, fully 74% scored below proficient in mathematics, 62% in reading, and 79% in science. Within those sorry aggregate scores lay the familiar disparities among black and Hispanic Americans, who lag behind their fellow students on the exams by as much as 20 to 30 points. Poor K–12 achievement has a direct impact on success in higher education. Even though U.S. students have been getting into college in ever increasing numbers over the past 20 years, the college graduation rate has not risen. Over the past 30 years, nearly every labor-intensive service industry in the U.S. has seen dramatic increases in productivity, while public education has become roughly half as productive—spending twice the money per student to achieve the same results.

Thanks, Mayor Moccia and Fairfield County, for costing the rest of us $1.2 trillion in revenue.  Aside from the GDP concerns, on a more human level, making a good education contingent on the wealth of the parents is wrong, morally and ethically.

A classroom at Bridge International Academies

Today I am surrounded by people who are passionate about making sure that every kid gets a chance, regardless of their place of birth or poverty status.  When I read stories like this about Fairfield County, I shake my head.  Fortunately, Fairfield County is hardly representative of the rest of the country (a better comparison is Zimbabwe).  If it was, then the American dream would truly be dead.

The other side of Fairfield County

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